ABRAHAM MALPAN (1796-1843)
From"Indian Christian Theology: Life and Thought of some pioneers
The New Day Publicationsof India, Tiruvalla 1992
Abraham Malpan was born in 1796 in the Palakkunnathu family of Travancore (now part of Kerala). The family belonged to the ancient Church of St. Thomas and traced its connection to one of tile families converted to Christianity by the Apostle Thomas. The family had given to the Church several leading clergymen and bishops in its long history.
At tile age o1' three, Abraham became all orphan and he was brought up by his paternal uncle, a clergyman of repute and piety. He got the best education available at the time, and when he finished his course in the native language (Malayalam) he was called to the deaconate. As deacon he got his training under The Rev. Kora Malpan (Malpan-teacher) of Puthupally who gave him thorough instruction in Syriac liturgy and the Bible. He learned the Bible in the Syrian language, as it had not been translated into Malayalam at that time. He was ordained priest in 1815 by the Then reigning Metropolitan of tile Malabar Church, Mar Thoma VIII.
Abraham was of staunch orthodox Jacobite belief. Since he had doubts about the validity of the apostolic succession of Mar Thoma VIII he had doubts about the validity of Iris own ordination. Consequently he received reordination from a Syrian bishop who visited Malabar. For thus flouting the authority of the Metropolitan who was the acknowledged head of the Church by Royal proclamation. Abraham had to undergo jail a sentence. He gladly went to jail for his conviction.
This was the period when the Protestant missions had started working ill the area -- the Basel Mission in British Malabar. London Mission in South Travancore and the Church Missionary Society Mission of Help to the Malabar Church in Central Travancore. They emphasized English education. As in other parts of India, evangelistic and educational mission was to bring new ideas in religion and society which would produce a movement against crude forms of idolatry and caste oppression in religion and religious culture, Since Abraham was called as Malpan to teach
Syriac in the theological seminary started, jointly by the Church and the C. M. S.. he had come under the influence of such new ideas earlier than the Hindu leaders of cultural and religious reform.
In the light of the new evangelical Christian teaching he received, be found his Church was steeped in corrupt and idolatrous practices and was lacking in an understanding of the gospel of personal salvation through faith in the grace of God m the Crucified and Risen Christ and its implications for personal responsibility For righteous living. So he sought to reform the Church.
His two symbolic but significant acts were the following. First, he put an end to a festival of tire Church centered in his parish, Maramon, a festival which he considered idolatrous. There was a wooden image of a saintly ancestor, which was consecrated by the people: and there was an annual festival in honor of this ancestor when the image would be taken in procession with prayers and offerings. It was a source of considerable income for the parish. Abraham Malpan found this festival idolatrous, spiritually degrading and superstitions. So the day before the festival he threw the image into a deep dry well and destroyed it. The enraged pilgrims spread wild rumors about his destructive tendencies, But be was teaching them a spiritual lesson.
Secondly, the Malpan, with cloven other clergymen, produced a manifesto (in the form era memorandum submitted to the British resident) indicating twenty-three corrupt practices in faith and morals in the Church. It was a call for spiritual and moral reformation. Since the liturgy of file Eucharist (Quarbana) was the central act of worship in the congregation's life and the recognized means of confessing the Faith and educating the people in faith and morals, they also made certain changes m the liturgy to make it more biblical as they understood it. Whenever Malpan officiated at the seminary and in the congregations, especially in his own parish, he used the revised liturgy for the communion service. He also put an end to auricular confession, invocation of the Virgin and the saints and the celebration of the Eucharist when no one was there to communicate along with the priest. He gave the bread and wine separately as in Protestant churches.
The ruling bishop Mar Dionysius did not approve of these reforms and lie excommunicated the Malpan and his entire congregation; and he refused to ordain to priesthood any deacons trained under the Malpan. This was a terrible blow to the Malpan who attached much importance to episcopacy. So, eager to get a Metran sympathetic to the reform movement, he sent his nephew, Mathew. a young man of remarkable ability and education, already a deacon, to Mardin in Syria to seek consecration as bishop. The Patriarch ordained him, and later consecrated him as bishop under the name Mathews Mar Athanasius
Mar Athanasius returned to India in 1843. But anxious to be acknowledged head of the whole Church, he celebrated communion in some parishes with the unrevised liturgy. This disappointed Abraham Malpan. and he died in 1846 and did not see Mathews Mar Athauasius declared by royal proclamation as head of the whole church. thus leading the reform movement.
As in the case of many early Indian theologians, Abraham Malpan's theology has to be derived from his life and acts., because he did not write any book. But the reformation in faith and morals, which he led, indicates his theological line
The Malpan had a high conception of the Church and was eager to preserve the Eastern character of the Church of the St. Thomas tradition. Otherwise he could have joined the Anglican Church which the CMS mission formed when their relation with the Orthodox Church in Malabar was terminated. But the Malpan was equally anxious that the Church should be reformed from within in the light of the Bible, which had now been translated into Malayalam. and the Church made Eastern and Evangelical, What he had in mind was a sort of Reformed Orthodoxy as Anglican Church was Reformed Catholic. But his main emphasis was on the gospel of personal salvation through faith in Christ and the renewal of personal life and relations which justification by faith would make possible. This of course was the new emphasis he had learned from the western mission. It was with this end in view that he made the revision in the liturgy of Holy Communion. Besides emphasizing .justification by faith rather than by religious works, the Malpan gave expression to the priesthood of the whole people of Christ over against the priesthood of the clergy.
The crucial result of the reform was the revival of personal religion and the awakening of the Church to spread the gospel among people of other faiths, especially the outcastes. The Church in Malabar had accepted the hierarchy of the traditional caste~structure since it gave them a middle status: and the members practiced untouchability to keep that status. Malpan's reform brought home to a group in the Church (and eventually to the whole Church) the urgency of the Church's evangelistic mission. Further, the Malpan's emphasis on personal salvation and personal decision brought a new sense of moral responsibility and spiritual renewal to the traditional culture of Kerala. This became clear in the later history of Kerala and the Kerala Churches. In one sense Abraham Malpan's reformation of the Christian community was a foretaste of the reformation of Sree Narayana Guru and Chattambi Swami in the Hindu Society based on the discovery of personal freedom and equality among persons.